On Building

Spreading the Fire:
Last Part in the Outsiders Series

This article appears in the November 2008 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

Two months ago, we saw how deeply the late architect Nader Khalili (1936 – 2008) revered clay. He aimed to rebuild parts of the world out of clay, firing it like pottery for greater stability. That way, he could provide safe, low-cost shelter for the poor.

His second memoir, Sidewalks on the Moon, expresses his feelings about clay: “This simplest of materials could mold any dream into any form and structure. It could become a water jug by one mind and a palace or even a whole city by others. The material is always the same. It is the way of molding that is different. Ultimately, it is the molder that makes the difference.”

One senses that he’s talking not only about clay or about his own visions. Rather, he’s talking about all of us—the potential in every person to shape and follow lifelong dreams.

Indeed, it wasn’t enough for Khalili to embrace and adhere to his own quest. He sought to send everyone down that road. Quoting the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, Khalili would say that if you wake up without a quest, it’s a waste of a day. Just as Khalili wanted to provide for the economically impoverished, he wanted to help the spiritually impoverished—anyone lacking a sense of deep, driving purpose.

To think that everyone can have a quest, not just the special few with social or architectural visions, is democratic to say the least. It’s also highly unusual for a visionary to think in such an egalitarian way.

People flocked to Cal-Earth, Khalili’s compound in the Southern California desert town of Hesperia, to learn about earth architecture. According to his widow, Iliona Outram, his main goal at Cal-Earth was to “create an ambience of inspiration.” And it worked, she said, marveling at all the visitors who found him inspiring, encouraging and compassionate. She notes that in earlier days, it wasn’t architects but rather ceramicists, writers and even homemakers who traveled to hear him speak. Clearly, his message transcended the limitations of any one profession. Outram told me, “What Nader started is an energy in this world.”

Khalili, who wrote and lectured prolifically, often spoke of what a quest is and how to pursue one. The necessary precondition is thirst of a metaphorical sort. Quoting Rumi, Khalili would say that parched lips will drive you until you find a fountain.

But it’s not enough to thirst for just anything, said Khalili, noting that daydreams about becoming rich, famous or sexy are only wishful thinking. A quest is different, he said. A quest is what moves you. A quest is a sense of purpose. “No one can prove there is any meaning to our existence,” he wrote. Nevertheless, he felt that a quest can make life more meaningful.

A quest should concern something beyond the self, Khalili believed. “My quests became more meaningful when my goals met with others’ needs and goals,” he wrote in Racing Alone, his first memoir.

Extending this notion of relating to others in a cooperative, productive way, he eschewed competition. He was fond of asking, “Why do we need to race each other constantly?” At 38, after achieving considerable success by designing skyscrapers, he dropped out of the rat race. He noted that as he followed his dreams in the latter half of life, “The joy of discovering and the ecstasy of creating brought with them a greater sense of achievement than any success I had gained before by racing and competing.” By ceasing to focus on racing and competing, everyone can access an “endless reserve of strength,” he said. Moreover, if you compete only with yourself (that is, race alone), you always come in first.

As he sought to inspire others with a sense of quest, he set the bar low and offered frequent reassurance. Khalili said not to worry if you haven’t figured out what your quest is: “A lot of times, the treasure is right in front of us,” only we’re in too much of a hurry to recognize it. Be around those who have the right energy and the right spirit—that is, people doing purposeful things. Get involved in something. Eventually, you’ll find your quest.

“Having a quest is the key to all your desires,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the quest will come true. Just having it is important.”

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Go to Part 9 of this series.